Chelsea FC needed a late goal from defender William Gallas to get their return to UEFA Champions League action off to a winning start as they extended AC Sparta Praha's winless run to five games.
Gallas poked home
Despite starting the game with seven of his big-name summer signings, Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri was indebted to a player who served him well last season. The France defender, recalled after missing Saturday's league win against Tottenham Hotspur FC, poked home from close range after substitute Damien Duff's cross was flicked on by another replacement, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, after 85 minutes.
The strength of Chelsea's squad was the difference between the sides. They had six full internationals on their substitutes' bench and all three replacements had a major impact on the game when they came on. England international Frank Lampard replaced Emmanuel Petit in central midfield at half-time and his sharp tackling and intelligent passing gave the visitors more bite.
Chances for Crespo
Chelsea forward Hernán Crespo, playing as a lone striker after the half-time withdrawal through injury of Adrian Mutu, could have broken the deadlock before Gallas scored. Crespo missed five chances on his debut, three of which were one-on-ones against solid Sparta goalkeeper Jaromír Blazek. The last of the efforts sailed over Blazek's head but did not have the strength to reach the goalline.
Chelsea did not have things their own way in the first period, despite seeing Mutu and Crespo squander early half-chances. That fine start proved a false dawn as Sparta's non-stop harrying and fierce tackling kept the visitors on the back foot whenever they were in possession.
Sparta did not look like a side languishing in seventh place in their domestic league and without a win in their last four games. Their key player was captain Karel Poborský, whose passing was a constant threat to the visitors: less than a week ago, he had lit up the Letná stadium with a match-winning performance against the Netherlands to seal the Czech Republic's place in the UEFA EURO 2004™ finals. The former Manchester United FC winger regularly picked up the runs of the willing Tomáŝ Jun and the impressive Radoslav Kovác. But his return was to end in disappointment.
It was Kovác who came closest to breaking the deadlock just before the half-time whistle. Poborský's deep cross evaded Glen Johnson at the back post and the midfield player's header was pushed round the post by Carlo Cudicini, who was at full stretch. Before then, Igor Glušcevic and Kovác again missed the target when in good positions on the edge of the area.
It was a warning sign that was heeded by Chelsea, and when Ranieri rang the changes at half-time and introduced Duff, Lampard, and then Hasselbaink, he was rewarded just in time.